Long before the Internet, pin-up models pushed the limits of what was taboo and what was acceptable. Posters of attractive men and women would decorate the walls of countless people. The models in these posters could be celebrities like Jim Morrison showing their risqué side, or they were glamor models who made a career out of being pin-up models. But of all the classic models of that time, it was Bettie Page who set the standard and is a by-word for racy pin-ups to this day. You might not know much about her, in which case this is the list for you to catch up on her life and legacy!
1. Welcome to the World
Page was born on April 22, 1923, in Nashville, Tennessee. Her birth name was Betty Mae Page, though she would spell her first name as “Bettie” from when she was a child.
2. You Talk Funny
Speaking of Tennessee, Page spent part of her young adult life trying to suppress her accent. At the time, her southern articulation was considered a serious handicap to finding work in the entertainment industry—this was several decades before Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, obviously.
3. Retiring Early
Although she was frequently listed as being 22 during her modeling heyday, Page actually began professional modeling when she was 27. She would quit that line of work just seven years later when she felt that she was getting too old.
As a teenager, Page and her siblings didn’t have the funds to fuel shopping sprees or regular salon trips, so they made do by learning to sew and doing their own hair and makeup. Page would later use these skills during her days as a pin-up model, fashioning her own clothing and doing her own makeup.
5. Immortalized in Space
Page actually has a minor planet named after her! Discovered by astronomers at Catalina Sky Survey in 2005, the planet is called 184784 Bettiepage. Not much is listed about it except that it has a diameter of 3.7 km—we said minor planet, keep in mind.
Page was such a driven and intelligent student during high school that she had the second-highest marks of her grade with a GPA of 97.19! Unfortunately, she considered this a terrible blow, as being the top student would have meant earning a four-year college scholarship. The reward for second-place was a scholarship to a teacher’s college worth $100.
7. The Tame Bettie Page
During her fame as a model, Page appeared in a small number of films. The first feature-length in which Page was featured in was the 1953 burlesque comedy Striporama. Despite a title like that, the film would struggle to get even a PG-13 rating today. Striporama features no nudity or sexual content, but instead focuses on non-nude stripteases, unique talents, and comedy routines.
8. Best Foot Forward
Page’s first credited appearance for the screen is the short video titled Teaser Girl in High Heels.
9. On Second Thought…
In 1944, Page graduated from George Peabody College with a Bachelor of Arts degree. She had originally enrolled at the college with the intention of becoming a teacher, given her previous scholarship. After a year, however, Page decided that she wanted to try acting instead, switching her major the following year.
10. How it Really Started
During the late 1940s, Page entered the world of “camera clubs.” Because of laws preventing pornographic images from being produced, clubs were formed to allow for nude and kinky pictures to be taken under the guise of art. Page had no problem with posing for such pictures, which naturally made her a very popular model amongst these clubs.
11. Royal Couple?
While Page was known as the Queen of Pin-Ups, Irving Klaw was known as the King—although it was more of a nickname he gave himself. To give the man credit, Klaw was a prominent merchandiser dealing in sexploitation and fetishes. He was inspired by the film Striporama to go into movie-making as well, and he would recruit Page for his ventures.
12. Family Business
Speaking of Irving Klaw, one of the models who frequently appeared alongside Page in these kinky photographs was none other than Klaw’s sister, Paula.
13. How Impartial of You!
During the 1940s, Page managed to secure a Hollywood screen test. Unfortunately, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Firstly, the man in charge of evaluating her test had previously tried to ask Page out but was turned down. Perhaps that might have accounted for Page being dolled up to look like Joan Crawford for her screen test despite her features not being complemented by the look. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to know that Page didn’t get a contract from the experience.
14. Tell Us More About Her!
Page has been the subject of several documentaries, which have featured archive footage of her videos or pictures. These include Betty Page: Bondage Queen, Striptease: The Greatest Exotic Dancers of All Time, and Taboo: The Beginning of Erotic Cinema.
15. I’ll Show You!
While it’s safe to say that Page acquired an immense fanbase during her life, she was actually rejected by the founder of Ford Modeling Agency. Eileen Ford didn’t think that Page had it in her to be a runway model, blaming her short height and wide hips for the rejection. It’s safe to say that Page would prove Ford wrong with her lucrative modeling career.
16. My Second Choice was a Mohawk Look
One of the main traits of Page’s iconic appearance was how she would cut her long black hair to leave bangs above her eyes. This was first recommended to her by Jerry Tibbs. Tibbs was a police officer in New York who was also an amateur photographer. Tibbs and Page made a deal where she would pose for him as a model, and he would provide her with her first pin-up portfolio. During their shoot, Tibbs suggested that bangs would compliment her high forehead. The rest is history.
17. What are You Looking At?
The first film that Page did with Irving Klaw was called Varietease. Formatted as a documentary, the film once again featured no nudity. Of course, being released in 1954, the various burlesque shows were seen as highly risqué and certainly NSFW.
18. Did She Frame Her First Paycheck?
While Page was studying in college, she got her first ever job to support herself. If you’re curious what that job was, it was working as a typist for Alfred Leland Crabb. Crabb was not only the Professor of Education at George Peabody College, he was also a celebrated author specializing in historical novels.
19. Modest Tribute
In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Nico B produced, wrote, and directed a biographical film about Page titled Bettie Page: Dark Angel. Portrayed on screen by adult film star Paige Richards, the low-budget film reenacts six of Page’s vignettes from the 1950s while loosely following her life during that era.
20. Play it Again, Bettie
Less known among her talents was her musical inclination. Page was able to play the guitar and the piano. Admittedly, the idea of Bettie Page including those skills into her pin-up posters would be a rather bizarre idea, so we can see why we don’t have many pictures of her playing music.
21. Fetish Fuel
Working with Irving Klaw, Page became the first known model who specialized in that particular fetish known as bondage. Page and another female model—usually Klaw’s sister, as mentioned earlier—would take turns dominating each other by tying each other up in various positions. Page became so famous for these bound-and-gagged poses that she was known as the “Queen of Bondage.”
22. Secret and Suppressed Desires
Despite the moniker she earned from her bondage pictures, Page herself was rather ambivalent about that particular kink. When asked about it many years later, Page explained that she was simply modeling for hire. She never judged anyone for their interest in bondage, but she herself had no particular attachment (no pun intended) to that sort of fun.
She also noted that even in the 1950s, when people in authority were expected to display an outwardly moral and conservative persona, judges and doctors were sending Page and Irving Klaw requests for more bondage pictures.
23. Joint Effort
In 2005, screenwriting partners Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner (best known for American Psycho) wrote and produced The Notorious Bettie Page, a biographical film about Page. Starring Gretchen Mol as Page, the film was modestly received, both critically and commercially.
24. Was it a Yearbook or a Tarot Card?
While studying at Hume-Fogg High School, Page was voted “Girl Most Likely to Succeed.” Frankly, given how things turned out, that was quite an accurate prediction!
25. I Do
Page’s first husband was named William E. Neal. They had gone to the same high school, albeit two years apart. They married on February 18, 1943, just before he was deployed for combat in the Second World War.
26. A Second Home
Being married to a member of the military, Page did a lot of traveling across the US and beyond. One of the places she liked most was the island of Haiti. Living in Port-au-Prince, Page developed a sort of kinship for Haitian culture and Haitian people.
27. Guess Who Found God
After her early retirement from pin-up modeling, Page did a complete U-turn by converting to born-again Christianity! Inspired by a multiracial church gathering in Key West, Page would attend classes at three different bible colleges and take part in a Christian retreat.
28. Not the Reason I Expected…
Page was completely serious about her new devotion to Christianity. During the 1960s, she applied to do missionary work overseas. As you might have predicted, Page’s application was rejected. What you probably wouldn’t predict, though, is the reason for Page’s rejection. It allegedly had nothing to do with her previous pin-up modeling; it was because she had been married and divorced several times by that point. Who knew that a divorcee was more offensive than a pin-up model to the Christian church?
29. Is That Me?!
By the 1980s, Page was living in obscurity and poverty, having struggled with schizophrenia and other mental conditions. Little did she know that her work during the 1940s and 50s experienced a major revival. As sexual fetishes made inroads into popular discussion, Page’s likeness was used for all kinds of merchandise, and helped inspire underground art movements.
On December 6, 2008, an elderly Page was admitted to a hospital after suffering a heart attack—though some news sources claimed it was due to pneumonia. Page was put on life support until the 11th, when her family relented and let her pass away. She was 85 years old.
31. Let’s Go Back to School!
In 1963, Page returned to Peabody College to continue her education. On top of her Bachelor of Arts, Page wanted to complete a master’s degree in education. Unfortunately, Page didn’t finish the program and dropped out of school prematurely.
32. As Told by Bettie
One of the definitive documentaries about Page is the 2012 film Bettie Page Reveals All. Directed by Mark Mori, the film is mostly narrated by Page herself, thanks to hours of archived audiotape interviews. The film also features appearances by her contemporaries (Hugh Hefner, Tempest Storm) as well as celebrities Naomi Campbell and Rebecca Romijn.
Believe it or not, Page would find full-time employment for years working for none other than Rev. Billy Graham. There are a few jokes to be made about the reverend employing a bondage pin-up model, but we don’t feel like being sued.
34. Queen B Imitating the Queen of B(ondage)
In 2009, Beyoncé released her single “Video Phone,” for which she also recruited Lady Gaga as a contributing artist. In the music video for the song, Beyoncé paid tribute to Page through her wardrobe. Beyoncé also adjusted her haircut to include bangs to rival Page’s original look.
35. Missed Opportunity
Although Page appeared on a 1955 centerfold of Playboy, she and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner didn’t actually meet until nearly 40 years later.
36. This is Getting Serious
During the 1950s, the Kefauver Committee examined organized crime in the US. The full name was the United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, but the name was popularly shortened to Kefauver after the surname of its chairman. Not only was Estes Kefauver from Page’s home state, he also subpoenaed Page and Irving Klaw on the subject of their photography business.
37. Point of Order!
The process of having to testify before the Kefauver Committee was a distressing subject for Page, who didn’t want to incriminate Irving or Paula Klaw with any testimony. Thankfully, she wasn’t required to give any testimony, but the committee attempted to vilify her work as being not just immoral, but dangerous. To that effect, they attempted to blame her bondage-themed pictures for the accidental death of a young man named Kenneth Grimm. Of course, the committee had to admit that there was no evidence that Grimm had even seen any of Page’s pictures prior to his own accidental death by asphyxiation.
38. The End of an Era
All in all, the Kefauver Committee was dismissed as being a cheap ploy for some grandstanding to allow Estes Kefauver to further his political career. But despite the failure of Kefauver’s committee to bring the hammer down on Page, the hearings did lead to laws being changed forbidding bondage-themed pictures through the mail, which was how Page’s pictures were normally distributed.
Many have speculated that this was why Page ultimately retired from that industry, as well as keeping her distance from the Klaws for fear of further legal persecution. According to Paula Klaw, she last heard from Page via a 1956 Christmas card.
39. Helping a Lady Out
Hugh Hefner invited Page to dinner at his mansion in 1993, when Page was still living in poverty, despite the lucrative industry selling her likeness. When Hefner realized the extent of Page’s situation, he introduced her to a new agent who could try and help her secure royalties. Hefner had chosen wisely, as this agent was also in charge of managing the James Dean and Marilyn Monroe estates. Hefner would later attend Page’s funeral, having ensured that she didn’t have any money problems for the rest of her life.
40. Hard Knock Life
When Page was 10 years old, her parents divorced, forcing her mother to try and care for Page and her five siblings alone. Not only was Page’s father unreliable for part of Page’s childhood, he spent two years in prison for car theft. Things got so stressful for Page’s mother that she sent the 10-year old Page and two sisters to stay in an orphanage for a year.
41. Cruelly Abused
On top of having to help her mother pick up the slack for her deadbeat father, Page was also betrayed by him in the worst way. Beginning when she was 13 years old, Page was sexually abused by her father. Reportedly, he also molested two of her sisters.
42. One Terrible Night
Following the dissolution of her first marriage, Page relocated to New York City in order to chase her dream of becoming an actress. One on occasion, the newly arrived Page was invited to accompany a man to go dancing. As they went along in his car, however, the man brought more friends along for the ride, until they stopped behind a school building. Page barely survived the ensuing sexual assault, whereupon she quickly left New York City for home in Nashville.
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